Sunday, May 31, 2015

Exogenous events shape cohort expectations

Many people, in discussing how people differ from one another fall back on the big three of race, class, gender/orientation. I have long argued that that is limiting. That there are known measurable differences related to educational attainment, region, geography, religion, culture, age, etc. One element that frequently gets passed over is generational cohort which often gets confused with age. Independent of aging, there are external events that leave a mark on each generation in ways that sometimes are hard to measure or discern but which are none-the-less influential. This paper, Depression Babies: Do Macroeconomic Experiences Affect Risk-Taking? by Ulrike Malmendier and Stefan Nagel, provides empirical support for that position.

From the abstract:
We investigate whether differences in individuals’ experiences of macro-economic shocks affect longterm risk attitudes, as is often suggested for the generation that experienced the Great Depression. Using data from the Survey of Consumer Finances from 1964-2004, we find that birth-cohorts that have experienced high stock market returns throughout their life report lower risk aversion, are more likely to be stock market participants, and, if they participate, invest a higher fraction of liquid wealth in stocks. We also find that cohorts that have experience high inflation are less likely to hold bonds. These results are estimated controlling for age, year effects, and a broad set of household characteristics. Our estimates indicate that stock market returns and inflation early in life affect risk-taking several decades later. However, more recent returns have a stronger effect, which fades away slowly as time progresses. Thus, the experience of risky asset payoffs over the course of an individuals’ life affects subsequent risk-taking. Our results explain, for example, the relatively low rates of stock market participation among young households in the early 1980s (following the disappointing stock market returns in the 1970s depression) and the relatively high participation rates of young investors in the late 1990s (following the boom years in the 1990s).

Field of Flowers

Field of Flowers
by Egon Schiele

Oh what a tangled web we weave

Our political class has, by and large, been so unscrupulous, so ethically challenged, so lacking in so many ways for so long that it is easy sometimes to forget just how bad it is. Orin Kerr is here to remind us.
If I understand the history correctly, in the late 1990s, the President was impeached for lying about a sexual affair by a House of Representatives led by a man who was also then hiding a sexual affair, who was supposed to be replaced by another Congressman who stepped down when forced to reveal that he too was having a sexual affair, which led to the election of a new Speaker of the House who now has been indicted for lying about payments covering up his sexual contact with a boy.

Yikes, indeed.

If that trail of sexual peccadillos is too complex to follow, the ne'er-do-wells referenced are President Clinton, Speaker Newt Gingrich, Speaker Designate Bob Livingston, and Speaker Dennis Hastert.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

There is more myth than gold in the mythical golden era

I find this graph strangely provocative and instructive.

# Infant mortality rates of both sexes by father’s social class in England and Wales, 1930/2–2001 – Max Roser3

Does class matter in real world outcomes?

Looking at this graph the answer is Absolutely; Less Than Before; and Not Really, depending on your perspective.

Does Class Matter?

Absolutely! - In 1930, infant mortality for a child of an unskilled worker was two and a half times that of the professional class, with 80 poor children dying for every 32 children of the upper class. Seventy years later, children of unskilled workers are still dying at nearly twice the rate of upper class children.

Less Than Before - Yes, seventy years later, the mortality ratio is still nearly twice as high (1.9X) but that still represents a thirty percent improvement in the respective mortality ratios.

Not Really - From the perspective of absolute outcomes, the improvement is night and day. The upper class child mortality rate in 1932 was more than four times that of the unskilled laborer child of 2001. While the ratio of unskilled class to laboring class has dropped to 1.9X (7.4/3.8), the absolute reduction in deaths is huge. A more than ten-fold improvement for children of unskilled laborers and a nearly ten-fold improvement for the upper class.

We have a habit of looking back at mythical golden ages but when you examine the numbers, there is more myth than there is gold. Any parent would choose to be in the unskilled manual laborer class today than in the professional class of 1930. You are far less likely to lose a child. Virtually everyone would still prefer to be upper class today than unskilled laborer class today but the absolute consequences of that difference are far, far less than they were in 1930.

Evidence is unbidden because it does not affirm the priors

A nice summary from Does Inequality Reduce Economic Growth: A Skeptical View by Timothy Taylor.
hose who find the rise in income inequality over the last few decades to be concerning, like me, can find themselves facing the "so what?" question. Is my concern over rising inequality an ethical or perhaps an aesthetic judgement, and thus a personal preference where economics really doesn't have much guidance to offer? Faced with this possibility, the temptation arises to claim the following syllogism: 1) We have experienced greater inequality, which is undesirable. 2) We have experiences slower economic growth, which is undesirable. 3) Therefore, greater inequality causes slower economic growth.

A variety of studies have undertaken to prove a connection from inequality to slower growth, but a full reading of the available evidence is that the evidence on this connection is inconclusive. For example, the OECD has recently published a report called "In It Together: Why Less Inequality Benefits All," and Chapter 3, titled "The Effect of Income Inequality on Economic Growth," offers an OECD analysis seeking to connect the two. But before presenting the new study, the OECD report has the honesty and forthrightness to point out that the full body of literature on this subject is inconclusive as whether such a relationship even exists--and if so, in what direction the relationship goes.


Given the competing theoretical explanations, what does the actual evidence say? The OECD writes
(pp. 61-62):
The large empirical literature attempting to summarize the direction in which inequality affects growth is summarised in the literature review in Cingano (2014, Annex II). That survey highlights that there is no consensus on the sign and strength of the relationship; furthermore, few works seek to identify which of the possible theoretical effects is at work. This is partly tradeable to the multiple empirical challenges facing this literature.
The passionate discussions about inequality over the past few years have struck me as primarily useful political cudgels to beat a political agenda of totalitarianism and coercion fueled by emotionalism.

We know that very extreme inequality has a negative consequence but that is at levels of inequality that are not seen outside of totalitarian dictatorships. The case that inequality in the ranges seen within OECD countries has always rested on logical extensions of unproven assumptions and very little empirical evidence. And as Taylor and the OECD report both aver, that is still the case.

Like climate, like economic development, like education, etc. the systems are far more complex than our current comprehension and the case for action is inadequate. That fact is frustrating to those compelled to action by faith-based beliefs but still does not overcome the fact that we simply do not know enough to intelligently make evidence-based decisions that can confidently yield beneficial outcomes and avoid unintended negative outcomes.

Scratch someone concerned about inequality and you likely have some mix of good intentions, poor epistemological awareness, and a reflexive totalitarian who wishes to force others to undertake the actions called for by their own faith. Evidence is unbidden because it does not affirm the priors.

Friday, May 29, 2015

The Little Owl

The Little Owl
1506 by Albrecht Dürer

In order to practice for my German proficiency exam, I spent the summer between my Junior and Senior year travelling around Germany, Austria and Switzerland. I was overwhelmed by the beauty of Austria and in particular the enormous amount of artwork in Vienna. That was my first real world exposure to the works of Dürer and I remain, now as then, astonished by the vividness and modernity of works such as The Little Owl, half a millennium old though it might be.

Learning to read seems to enable the mind to work better at a categorical level

Timothy Bates comments on a Bryan Caplan post, The Hours and Academic Achievement.
Caplan notes:
Adults love controlling the way kids spend the hours of the day. What's the payoff for all their meddling? Hofferth and Sandberg's "How American Children Spend Their Time" (Journal of Marriage and the Family) provides some fascinating answers for kids ages 0-12.

After compiling the basic facts about kids' time use from the 1997 Child Development Supplement to the PSID, H&S regress measures of academic achievement on time use, controlling for child's age, gender, race, ethnicity, head of household's education and age, plus family structure, family employment, family income, and family size. All test scores have a mean of 100 and a standard deviation of 15, and all time use is expressed in hours per week.


The big result is the lack of results. Controlling for family and child background, time in school and studying barely help - and television viewing barely hurts. Contrary to wishful assertions that exercising the body improves the mind, sports don't matter either. Out of nineteen activities, only two predict greater academic success across the board: reading and visiting.

The estimated effect of visiting is modest. Reading, however, is a huge deal. Ceteris paribus, 10 extra hours of reading per week raise letter-word comprehension by .5 SDs, and passage comprehension, applied problems, and calculations scores by .4 SDs. Despite obvious worries about reverse causation - smart kids enjoy books more - much of this is plausibly causal. After all, many smart kids don't read much, and H&S include a lot of solid control variables. And you really can learn a lot from books.
Timothy Bates responds in the comments.
You might be interested in two papers where we hypothesised that aquiring the ability to read (as opposed to reading books) would raise IQ.

In a large cohort, controlling childhood SES, reading (and math) were associated with big gains in adult social status, through pretty complex links, including later IQ.

Collaborating with the TEDS cohort of several thousand identical twins studied in multiple waves from age 3 to age 16, we tested if one of the twins got better on a test of reading, would they score higher on IQ in later years? The Design includes the initial (moderately strong) association of these two traits, and nests all analyses within families to avoid those confounds).

The answer was yes: If one of two genetically identical twins acquires better reading skills, these are realised not only as enduring gains in reading, but in changed (increased) IQ in later waves.

These were not explained by reading of books: Rather learning to read seems to enable the mind to work better at a categorical level.

So, people differ greatly in IQ for genetic reasons, and literacy makes people smarter than they would have been.

Links to the papers are here:
All this goes to my interest in whether recreational reading (as opposed to purposeful reading) has any correlation with life outcomes. We commonly associate enthusiastic reading with good life outcomes but fail to control for other confounding variables such as IQ, SES, parental education attainment, etc. In other words, recreational reading may simply be the product of underlying variables rather than an independent variable itself.

Bates' work doesn't directly address that question but obliquely seems to indicate that recreational reading volumes are not an independent variable and that it is IQ and purposefulness that are the drivers of life outcomes.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

A Jungle Book Trope, self-aggrandizing fairy tales

Interesting. I just posted on the emerging controversy about Alice Goffman's book published last year, On the Run. A new review in The Rambler, Ethics on the Run by Steven Lubet, calls into question the factual validity of what Goffman was reporting.

In checking a couple of facts for the previous post, I came across this much more critical review of Goffman's book from a year ago, The Stoop isn't the Jungle by Dwayne Betts. Betts raises just about all the issues that Lubet raises plus some more.

Why didn't these questions get more traction at the time? Perhaps it was simply the torrent of positive praise which drowned out all else. Perhaps the fact that it appeared in Slate, where editorial standards are somewhat notorious, might have resulted in the criticism having been discounted.

That's a shame because Betts raised good issues that needed to be addressed. Apart from the factual accuracy, I thought this criticism was telling as well.
There is one more dark aspect to On the Run. Immersing herself in the lives of her friends and subjects, Goffman nearly loses herself. One night, after a rival crew murdered Chuck, she found herself driving Mike around searching for Chuck’s killer. She tells us that she wanted Chuck’s killer dead just as Mike and the rest of the crew did. Mike did not find his target that night. What if he had? Goffman never interrogates her own motives, or how close she came, potentially, to abetting a killing. Instead, this reads as her crowning war story, the moment when she finally understood what it meant to be one of the young men of 6th Street.

University of California at Santa Barbara sociologist Victor Rios has a name for this: the “jungle book trope.” In his book Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Youth, Rios characterizes this trope as a self-aggrandizing fairy tale, in which an innocent white person gets lost in the wild, is taken in by the wild people, survives, and returns to society with a story to tell. I wish Goffman’s book didn’t read that way to me. But it does.
That sounds right. The psychological impetus of many of these writers seems both suspect and concerning.

A hard beating

Sabrina Rubin Ederly followed by Michael LaCour and now Alice Goffman.

The progressive social sciences have taken a hard beating in the past few months. If you don’t want to click through to the background in each case, the summary is that each person has produced research/journalism of a very compelling nature which has entered the knowledge domain in their respective areas (campus sexual violence, gay marriage, and police predation on the underclass). And in each case it now appears that the work, after initial enthusiastic reception, has had to be withdrawn because the stories were made up. Goffman is not yet quite as completely discredited as the first two but the fact that she has destroyed all her field notes does not augur well.

It raises an interesting question. Is there a counterpart on the conservative side of things? Hard to tell. Conservative academics are a relatively rare breed. Conservative academics in the social sciences even rarer. Plus, being a hated minority likely makes them even more cautious in their research.

So is there something about the ethos of the social progressive that predisposes them to fraud, are they simply more gullible, interpreting everything as being consistent with their pre-existing beliefs, or is there something else going on.

Is the issue not so much progressive politics as perhaps it might be that advocacy journalism has its own set of risks? In other words, in seeking to make a story engaging and gripping, that so much factual validity has to be sacrificed that at the end of the process, what might initially have been a fact based case has now become simply a work of fiction?

Perhaps it is a function, not of the advocacy but of the foundational moral principles. Building on an interpretation of Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory, perhaps the issue might be something along these lines: Progressives have a narrower and more relativistic view of morals (Care/harm and Fairness/cheating) and have a comfort with the idea that there can be an acceptable trade-off between ends and means. In other words, perhaps academic progressives are more comfortable with the Faustian bargain that the ends justify the means and therefore, from that accepting construct, end up accepting that bargain more often than they should.

In contrast, Haidt’s research seems to suggest that conservatives and libertarians have a more complex and extended values system (Care/harm, Fairness (equality)/cheating, Liberty/oppression, Loyalty/betrayal, Authority/subversion, and Sanctity/degradation), which forces more complex moral decision-making. Because they weight more factors, the argument might be that they are then less prone to simple Faustian bargains.

In other words, perhaps conservatives and libertarians are equally prone to committing fraud but because of their more complex and less relativistic moral structures are less likely to slip into fraud.

No answers. Just mulling.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015


1937 by M.C. Escher

Partly because Escher has become so pigeonholed it is easy to forget his other work. Partly because I love maritime paintings. Partly because I love the details of period pieces. In this case, note the double glass porthole with two separate sets of latchings.

Their mental world maps are fundamentally incompatible with the norms of reason as understood by others

I have long remarked that one of Obama's challenges as a president has been his notable inability to negotiate. And not just with Republicans. He has an almost unblemished track record of negotiation failures with foreign leaders and even with Congressional leaders of his own party. I have always set this down to simple inexperience. Having never had executive authority prior to his election as President, I just assumed that Obama simply had no experience in negotiations and therefore, being inexperienced, was bad at it.

Walter Russell Mead in Obama, Anti-Semitism and Iran, has a complementary view that does not negate the inexperience argument but does provide context and depth. It is an argument with an irony but I suspect is probably an argument with merit.
It seems clear from this exchange that the President either doesn’t understand or flatly disagrees with the point Goldberg has in mind. Goldberg’s point is that serious anti-Semites (that is, people whose worldviews are shaped and informed by Jew hatred as opposed to people who have, for example, a social prejudice against associating with Jews) don’t understand reality the way that other people do. They see a world dominated by Jewish plots and secret cartels, and believe that the Elders of Zion rule the world behind a screen of deception and misdirection.

This doesn’t just mean that they have some quirky and unpleasant views. It means that they don’t understand how politics work, why economies behave as they do, or how power is constructed in the modern world. As I wrote in an earlier post on this subject, “Jew haters don’t understand how the world works; anti-Semitism is both a cause and a consequence of a basic failure to comprehend the way pluralistic and liberal societies behave. As a result, nations and political establishments warped by this hatred tend to make one dumb decision after another — starting at shadows, warding off imaginary dangers, misunderstanding the nature of the problems they face.”

There are many forms of prejudice and bigotry, and they are all twisted and ugly, but Jew hatred may well be the most damaging to the hater’s ability to understand the world. Jew hatred takes the form of a belief that conspiratorial groups of super-empowered Jews run the world in secret, cleverly manipulating the news media and the intelligentsia to hide the truth of their control. Someone who really believes this isn’t just a heart-blighted ignorant boor; someone who believes this lives in a house of mirrors, incapable of understanding the way the world actually works.

President Obama seems to understand anti-Semitism as a much more superficial phenomenon. He has no patience for it, and scorns it morally and intellectually, but he sees it as an emotional force, a hatred that sometimes, “on the margins” causes people to do stupid and ugly things. An anti-Semite might kick a Jew when nobody is looking, or vent his feelings when in like minded company, but as a rational actor, the anti-Semite won’t indulge his emotional dislike of Jews at the expense of his vital interests. He won’t turn down tenure at Harvard because there are too many Jews on the faculty, or turn down an otherwise attractive job offer from Goldman Sachs because the company has Jewish origins. Nor will he radically misinterpret the position of an American president seeking a win-win end to the U.S.-Iran standoff.

President Obama agrees with Goldberg that anti-Semitism is a bad thing and that Iran’s regime is riddled with it. The difference between them seems to be that the President believes that this propensity of the Iranian leadership is unpleasant but ultimately not that important. Goldberg, however, is asking a deeper question: does the fact that the curse of anti-Semitism has the Iranian leadership tightly in its grip mean that the Iranian leaders aren’t, by our lights, rational actors? When this phrase comes up in a nuclear context, ‘rational actor’ usually means someone who understands the logic of deterrence and is prepared to be deterred by it. But there are other forms of unreason. Goldberg seems to be asking whether President Obama has fully considered the possibility that his counterparts in Iran don’t see the same world that he does, that they don’t think political cause and effect works the same way that he thinks it does and that they see him, for example, less as an independent actor proceeding on the basis of rational convictions and humanitarian good will than as a mask for the real American overlords, the evil Waspo-Jewish conspiracy that in the demonology of Iranian revolutionary thought controls the United States and is driving the world to destruction?

What gives the question its resonance is the uncomfortable fact that President Obama has been singularly unsuccessful at understanding and dealing with foreign leaders who don’t share his world view. President Obama tried to deal with both Vladimir Putin and Recep Erdogan on the basis of western rationality. He failed in both cases to understand that these men were driven by very different visions and priorities from those President Obama assumed that all rational people share. He was wrong about them, and he appears to have similarly misread the Saudis.

The problem here is that the President, ironically enough, doesn’t seem to understand diversity. He thinks diversity is trivial: that people of different religious faiths, ethnic backgrounds and ideological convictions are not all that different in the way they look at the world. The President’s life experiences have taught him that diversity is superficially important but on the big issues it matters much less. Rulers of great nations, in particular, can’t afford to let their backgrounds and their religious ideas get in the way of clear thinking and planning.

Essentially, Goldberg was asking the President whether his years in the White House have taught him that real diversity exists, and that it matters. He was asking whether the President understands that people from different cultures can sometimes operate on the basis of such radically different presuppositions that their mental world maps are fundamentally incompatible with the norms of reason as the President sees them. He was asking whether the President had considered whether Iranian leaders in particular reason so differently from standard cosmopolitan Washington liberal thinking that they may not, in fact, be approaching these negotiations from what the President, and most Americans, would recognize as a logical point of view.
This line of argument is consistent with another issue. When arguing/negotiating with any opponents, but particularly with Republicans, many commentators have noted a certain dismissive arrogance on the part of Obama. That he seems to consider it impossible that his opponents are arguing in good faith.

Mead's explanation suggests that perhaps it is not arrogance but incomprehension. It is impossible for Obama comprehend that others have alternative goals, have different knowledge sets and make different trade-off decisions than he does. I think Mead is probably raising a good point with foreign negotiations and that same point probably has domestic relevance.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Trees in Snow

Trees in Snow, 1883
by George Elbert Burr

Reminds me of winters in my childhood in England and Sweden. The quiet isolation of hiking in woods during a snowstorm.

They are incompatible goals

Claire Cain Miller has a useful article this morning, When Family-Friendly Policies Backfire. Miller approaches this with a certain amount of naivete, as if some of this is new or unfamiliar. And perhaps it is in advocacy circles.

Social Justice Warriors and those of that ilk are very good at highlighting inequities but then fairly incompetent at determining costs, benefits, and trade-offs. There are many ways in which we would wish the world to be better and for people to treat one another more kindly than they do. But the world is as it is. There are limits to time and money and people have materially different goals, objectives and trade-offs they are willing to make. You can't just wish all that away. There is a delicate balance between supinely accepting the world as it is and boldly trying to change it for the better when you don't understand it.

As a predicate, there is the simple fact that bearing and raising children has costs in terms of expenditures and opportunity costs. While only a woman can give birth, it is optional, within a household, how parental time will be allocated and there is no necessity that it only be the mother that has primary responsibility for raising children. Two adults may equally share responsibility but consequently sharply limiting their work flexibility in terms of schedules and hour volumes. Others might work the model of one full-time and one part-time adult in the labor force. Yet others will pursue a full-time worker model with a stay-at-home parent looking after the family. Each model has risks and benefits that vary by sector and time period and stage of life.

A second predicate is that there is a real and well established connection between amount of time, duration of time, intensity, flexibility and purposefulness of engagement with a job/career and the level of productivity and recognition attainment that can be achieved. And the relationship is not linear. A person who works 40 hours a week at a given task or role is more than twice as productive as the person only working 20 hours a week. Everyone, male or female, in every field of endeavor, who rises to the top in terms of productivity and/or recognition, works long hours, over long periods of time, with significant flexibility and with great purposefulness. No one who works part time, inflexibly, or intermittently demonstrates comparable levels of productivity or attainment.

Given those realities then, there are three separate goals that are often conflated but which in fact work against each other. I think most people would agree that all three of these goals are desirable.
1) Children should have sufficient parental time and attention to achieve their best.
2) Government policies should mitigate to some degree the costs (expenditure and in terms of career consequences) to parents of having children.
3) Women should be equally represented among high achievers as men.
Goal 1 is a bit of challenge as people disagree as to what constitutes sufficient effective parental time and attention. Let's pass on that for the moment.

Goal 2 implies things like guaranteed parental child care leave, guarantees regarding being able to work part-time, subsidized child-care centers, etc. All of these things make it easier for a parent to have a child and yet remain in the workplace if that is your goal. But all of them have costs that someone has to pay.

Goal 3 has several implications. Equality of outcomes can only be achieved coercively. Childless workers and parents with a stay-at-home spouse will need to restrict their hours of work to the same amount that mothers are able to work. Alternatively, you can accept that circumstances drive differential performance but decide that the goal of equity of outcomes warrants affirmative actions and quotas such that child caring parents are promoted in lock-step with adults who have no children or who have a stay-at-home spouse.

Regardless of which goals are chosen, there are costs that someone has to bear. Most often, governments choose to impose those costs on some class of people or institution rather than pay those costs directly out of government funds. Usually it is employers who bear the costs. Economically this is an undesirable approach. If being required to secure jobs for people to return to, to provide limited hours or flexible hours or to provide child care has a cost, as it does, you should spread that cost to everyone. All society enjoys the benefits of future generations of taxpayers. Regrettably, governments tend to shy away from transparency. It is easier to simply impose those costs on some category of taxpayer and hide that cost from everyone else. Lack of transparency has all sorts of consequences though, as do any policies that have costs.

If you make something more expensive, people will demand less of it. Supply and demand.
In Chile, a law requires employers to provide working mothers with child care. One result? Women are paid less.
The government wanted to make it easier for women to remain in the workforce but did not want to bear that cost itself. It imposed that cost on employers. Facing a more expensive workforce, employers can react in two ways. They can automate and employ fewer people or they can, if the law allows, pay less for that part of the workforce driving the new cost. But this is not unintended. This is entirely predictable. It is simply the predictable consequence of increasing the cost of a class of employees. The government may not like the consequence, but unless it is willing to absorb the cost itself, it does not hold the moral high ground.

Miller reports
Elsewhere in Europe, generous maternity leaves have meant that women are much less likely than men to become managers or achieve other high-powered positions at work.

Family-friendly policies can help parents balance jobs and responsibilities at home, and go a long way toward making it possible for women with children to remain in the work force. But these policies often have unintended consequences.

They can end up discouraging employers from hiring women in the first place, because they fear women will leave for long periods or use expensive benefits.
Fundamentally, the government has to decide what it is willing to pay for. If it enacts pro-natalist or gender neutral laws, women (based on the experience in multiple European countries) tend to reduce their workforce participation rates and/or reduce their hours worked. Mothers spend more time with families which supports Goal 1 but the consequence is that while they remain employed to some degree, they come off the advancement track and no longer improve their productivity (part-time and inflexible hours). In Sweden, those women who do work, tend to work primarily for the government. The other consequence is that while it is easier for women to continue to work to some degree, there are far fewer women at the tops of different fields of endeavor.

With its low government intervention profile, the US makes it harder for women to remain in the workforce (little or no subsidies for childcare) but compared to Europe there are far more women in the US at the tops of every sector - sports, business, law, politics, art, academia, etc. Women are only about 15-30% of the top performers in most fields but they are there in virtually all fields in contrast to Europe where there are whole swaths of endeavor that are solely male.

There are two issues out of this. The first is that hiding costs has indirect but predictable effects. The more you try to hide, usually the more consequential are the negative outcomes. The second is that having children is societally necessary and desirable but the policies that encourage procreation tend also to reduce female labor force participation and achievement. There is no way to bridge the trade-offs, all you can do is choose, through ignorance or through conscious decision-making, one set of outcomes or another. You cannot be both pro-natalist and pro-equal gender outcomes. They are incompatible goals.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Hope and high expectations

An interesting coincidence. I am reading Tim Harford's The Logic of Life, The Rational Economics of An Irrational World. A bit dated but some very good material. One of the points he makes is about the delicacy of systems. In particular, he uses the example of African American students, believing that college is beyond them, essentially abandoning any effort to achieve college, ending up with a self-reinforcing cycle of failure and despair. They think they can't get to college, therefore they don't try, therefore they don't get the grades they need, therefore they don't get into college, therefore they don't try . . .

Harford doesn't address it directly but several of his case studies have the unstated lesson that effort in the face of obstacles sometimes delivers its own miracles. Sometimes the rational is insufficient and you have to make your own reality. There is a corollary lesson related to expectations. Sometimes higher than reasonable expectations actually generate their own higher than to be expected results.

In this morning's New York Times there is an article, One Man’s Millions Turn a Community Around in Florida by Lizette Alvarez.
Two decades ago, Harris Rosen, who grew up poor on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and became wealthy in the Florida hotel business, decided to shepherd part of his fortune into a troubled community with the melodious sounding name of Tangelo Park.

A quick snap from the city’s tourist engine, this neighborhood of small, once-charming houses seemed a world away from theme park pleasures as its leaders tried to beat back drugs, crime and too many shuttered homes. Nearly half its students had dropped out of school.

Twenty-one years later, with an infusion of $11 million of Mr. Rosen’s money so far, Tangelo Park is a striking success story. Nearly all its seniors graduate from high school, and most go on to college on full scholarships Mr. Rosen has financed.

Young children head for kindergarten primed for learning, or already reading, because of the free day care centers and a prekindergarten program Mr. Rosen provides. Property values have climbed. Houses and lawns, with few exceptions, are welcoming. Crime has plummeted.
This is the passage that resonated with the research being reported by Harford.
Sitting with his feet propped up on his old, weathered wooden desk, Mr. Rosen, 75, fit, trim and not given to formalities (his shelter dogs are known to wander about the room), said the program was rooted in an element absent in many American neighborhoods.

“Hope,” Mr. Rosen said. Why devote countless hours to school if college, with its high cost, is out of reach? “If you don’t have any hope,” he added, “then what’s the point?”
Hope and high expectations. I keep coming across those themes.

Stop and Eat

Stop and Eat by Timothy Horn

The occupations with the largest gender gaps were those with the least temporal flexibility

Claudia Goldin is a Harvard Professor of economics. I very much admire her doggedness in trying to wrest data from history in order to answer important questions. She is logical and empirical which trumps her tendency, from my perspective, of approaching the world from a very privileged position. It seems in some of her work as if she most cares about what can be done to improve the lives and welfare of privileged upper class, highly educated, women. Regardless of that perceived bias, I have the sense she follows the evidence where it leads, regardless of what she wants it to say. That is admirable.

For example, she had some research out in the past couple of years affirming what we already know which is that the popular shibboleth of a gender pay gap is pure malarky. But in that process Goldin explores an issue which I have long identified as important but which I have never seen elsewhere researched - the importance in some business sectors of work flexibility. Success in those sectors isn't only a matter of the volume of time (hours per week) and duration (years in sector) but very materially, also, flexibility. In management consulting, in law, in project based work, it isn't only a factor of putting in a lot of hours, it is a matter of putting in those hours when they are most needed. The client calls Saturday morning and unexpectedly needs you in Hong Kong on Monday morning. Some employees are so situated that they can manage that. They benefit. Others are not so situated. They aren't punished per se, but they miss out on an opportunity. Goldin properly, I think, provides some substance empirical evidence supporting the importance of that issue. Goldin then focuses on how can women who are working inflexible hours and/or limited hours overcome the advantage arising from flexibility. She comes up with the generic proposition that in order to better advantage educated women in professions, they should make work more plannable. Fine as far it goes. But it goes nowhere because that isn't the world we live in. Find out how to make inflexible and part time workers more productive than they are and you begin to get at the root issue. Enjoining businesses to change the world to benefit a small sliver of the workforce is, I think, unproductive.

This interview of her by the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond has a lot of good material about her research interests and findings.

Some passages I found very interesting.
So then the question is, why are there some occupations with large gender gaps and others with very narrow gaps? There are some occupations where people face a nonlinear function of wages with respect to hours worked; that is, people earn a disproportionate premium for working long and continuous hours. For example, someone with a law degree could work as a lawyer in a large firm, and that person would make a lot of money per unit of time. But if that person worked fewer than a certain number of hours per week, the pay rate would be cut quite a bit. Or someone could work fewer or more flexible hours as general counsel for a company and earn less per unit of time than the large-firm lawyer. Pharmacy is the opposite — earnings increase linearly with hours worked. There's no part-time penalty.

I started thinking about a very simple framework in which temporal flexibility is the important issue and I wondered if occupations with large gender gaps are those with relatively high penalties for not putting in the hours or not attending the meeting or not going to Japan to see the client. And those are things that might be particularly difficult for parents. If women have a greater burden with respect to child care, then these occupations will be the occupations where women pay the greatest penalties. So then I began to zero in on the occupations where the penalties were the lowest and ask what was so different about them.

To do so, I went to the Occupational Information Network (O*NET), a directory supported by the Department of Labor. In O*NET, each of the 469 occupations in the census is covered and some are further subdivided, often by industry. And for each of those occupations there are hundreds of details about the job gathered, in part, by observing or surveying workers — details ranging from the strength requirements to the lighting and other ambient conditions of the workplace. But relevant to my research, O*NET provides information on: How important is face time? What types of interpersonal relationships are there? Do people work on projects independently or in teams?

This was a real beacon of light. Sure enough, the occupations in the corporate and financial sector were all skewed in the direction of having O*NET characteristics that meant employees were required to be there. And in the technology occupations, people were working more independently and there wasn't a lot of face time. I also used longitudinal data on lawyers from the University of Michigan and survey data I collected on University of Chicago MBAs with Marianne Bertrand and Larry Katz. I also had access to data on a large sample of pharmacists. And from all these sources it became clear that the occupations with the largest gender gaps were those with the least temporal flexibility, where people are complements for each other rather than good substitutes.

Saying workers are good substitutes for each other sounds like you're commoditizing them. But it can be true even for very high-income professions. I got a note from my ophthalmologist after I had a minor procedure that essentially said, "You will probably never see me again because there are 20 different professionals in my group who can take care of you." And pharmacy, which is my favorite example, is very highly paid. For


In many different writings in the late 19th century and early 20th century in the United States, you start to sense that having more education, being more literate and more numerate, got you a lot further in the labor market. Contemporary economists noticed it too; Paul Douglas [who taught at the University of Chicago, among other schools, before becoming a U.S. senator] described it as an era of "noncompeting groups" — individuals who had a modicum of a high school education, let alone a college education, did phenomenally better than others, because high school education simply wasn't widespread.

Larry Katz and I used data from the 1915 Iowa state census to show that these pecuniary returns were not just a result of the shifting of individuals from blue-collar or agricultural occupations to white-collar occupations, but in fact, even within the agricultural sector more-educated farmers did better than less-educated farmers. The reasons are pretty obvious: The educated farmer did his accounting better, could figure out which crops to plant, and could read about different breeds of animals and how to protect them from disease. More-educated workers also did better than less-educated workers in the manufacturing sector and in the construction trades.

Individuals observed the high returns to education, and this unleashed a nationwide movement — in large measure a decentralized, grassroots movement — to build and staff high schools across the country. In 1910, only 9 percent of 19-year-olds in the United States had a high school diploma. That climbed up to 51 percent by 1940. There was a huge shift during the century, as the physical capital we were using became relatively less important than the mental capital we carried inside ourselves.

EF: What is the significance of the high school movement being a grassroots movement?

Goldin: The education system in the early 20th century was a decentralized system that was very open, albeit with some important exceptions, such as African Americans and certain immigrant groups. But by and large, relative to Europe, America was educating all its children. European visitors would come to the United States and be shocked by how America was wasting its resources. European countries were cherry picking which students would get a good education; they set very high standards and had national exams. We didn't. We had more of a free-for-all, grassroots, local system in which until recently there were few state exams for graduation. That served us very well by getting a large number of students to graduate from high school. By the 1950s, U.S. high school enrollment and graduation rates were relatively high, much higher than Europe.

But then various European countries started looking more like the United States; they began to pull more individuals into high schools, some via technical schools but also by expanding more general education. And many of them did so without abandoning the higher standards of the more elitist period. The United States, on the other hand, has had a very hard time adopting uniform standards. The idea has been that the different parts of the country have different demands, so we don't need to have national standards. And it's true that we do have a far more heterogeneous population. But the enormous virtue of decentralization has more recently caused some difficulty.


Inequality measured by labor incomes is relatively high from the earliest that we can measure it, in the late 19th century; educated workers did very well relative to everyone else until about 1920. But then the high school movement burst forth and the supply of educated workers increased, and the quasi-rents to higher education began to decline quite a bit, which was reinforced by the Great Depression and the narrowing of the wage structure in the 1940s that Bob Margo and I termed "the Great Compression." But in the late 1970s and early 1980s both inequality and the education premium started rising again. (This is apart from what's happening at the very top; my book with Katz is about the bottom 99 percent.)

What's going on? You can see in the data that education, in terms of years of education or the fraction of the population that graduated high school or college, increases beginning around 1910, but then around 1980 the rate of increase slows down. The easiest way to think about it is as a race between education and technology, or between the supply of skilled workers and the demand for skilled workers. The demand for educated workers is moving out at a constant rate, and as long as the supply keeps moving out at a pretty sturdy rate it keeps the premium to education in check. But when the supply stops moving out there's a large increase once again in the premium to educated workers. That's the very simple one-graph story.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The River of Sleep

The River of Sleep by N.C. Wyeth

A little apart from the style most people would recognize, this is from Illustration for The World of Music Series "Song Programs for Youth: TREASURE" Published by Ginn and Company 1938.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Snowflakes and mockery

In some corners, a recent op-ed in the Columbia University newspaper has excited negative commentary. It is held up as an example of the sort of totalitarian bullying and speech control which appears to have become so prevalent in academia. In Our identities matter in Core classrooms by Kai Johnson, Tanika Lynch, Elizabeth Monroe and Tracey Wang, the authors contend that classic literary works from the Western Canon can be "wrought with histories and narratives of exclusion and oppression, can be difficult to read and discuss as a survivor, a person of color, or a student from a low-income background." Indeed,
During the week spent on Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” the class was instructed to read the myths of Persephone and Daphne, both of which include vivid depictions of rape and sexual assault. As a survivor of sexual assault, the student described being triggered while reading such detailed accounts of rape throughout the work. However, the student said her professor focused on the beauty of the language and the splendor of the imagery when lecturing on the text. As a result, the student completely disengaged from the class discussion as a means of self-preservation. She did not feel safe in the class. When she approached her professor after class, the student said she was essentially dismissed, and her concerns were ignored.
There is a lot of mewling and puking in the opinion piece but it comes down to a desire that each student should determine, through the heckler's veto (or the triggered's veto), what other students are allowed to read and not read.

All very depressing for everyone else's opinion of the snowflake generation. The ray of sunshine is in the comments. Some are quite practical and expose the fact that this is simply an exercise in seizing control. As one commenter points out, the syllabus and books are known in advance. If the student susceptible to triggering has done her work as she is supposed to, she won't be triggered in class and can handle her psychological infirmities off-line with the professor and not impose on all the other students.

But most of them, the overwhelming majority of the comments, are the good old democratic editorials of mockery and satire.

The mockery begins with the very first comment and rolls from there with hundreds of up votes.
Anonymous posted on Apr 30, 11:21am
"She did not feel safe in the class"
"Students need to feel safe in the classroom"
You people sound like 1980s Christian mothers talking about theirs kids being exposed to the evil influence of Madonna. Grow up, open up, care less about your identity and more about your passions, and please be passionate about anything... except your own identity. Such an insufferable breed of self-centered Care Bears.

Care Bear Cody posted on May 7, 2:06pm
I think you are incredibly insensitive of Care Bear culture. As a representative Care Bear, I was triggered by your statements and deeply hurt. I for one, love Madonna's Like a Prayer. Makes me want to get on my knees.
I'd like to start a petition to have people like you banned from buying and selling Care Bears for entertainment purposes.

Madonna posted on May 8, 1:15pm
Stop culturally appropriating me.
Heh. I wonder if mockery and satire are also triggering.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Morning Sail

Morning Sail by Gary Akers

Makes me feel like summer.

Don't immanentize the eschaton. Huh?

I almost never encounter a phrase which I can't at least guestimate the meaning of even if I don't know it. But I did today in someone's comment on a master regional plan. The commenter said, "Don't immanentize the eschaton." Huh?

Well, apparently it is, according to Wikipedia, alive in some circles. Once I read the explanation, I can see the clues I should have noticed as to the meaning. But I couldn't have gotten to there without the guidepost.
In political theory and theology, to immanentize the eschaton means trying to bring about the eschaton (the final, heaven-like stage of history) in the immanent world. It has been used by conservative critics as a pejorative reference to certain utopian projects, such as socialism, communism, and transhumanism. In all these contexts it means "trying to make that which belongs to the afterlife happen here and now (on Earth)" or "trying to create heaven here on Earth." Theologically the belief is akin to Postmillennialism as reflected in the Social Gospel of the 1880-1930 era, as well as Protestant reform movements during the Second Great Awakening in the 1830s and 1840s such as abolitionism.

I suppose "don't immanentize the eschaton" is a more succinct way of saying, "don't coercively impose an ideologically conceived solution to a complex problem on a reluctant population without full consent and involvement and without robust evidence of likely outcomes" but that still doesn't seem to be an effective form of communication.

Saida Grundy - Inconceivable

Boston University has apparently made an ill-considered and perhaps poorly researched new hire, Saida Grundy. The saga erupted a couple of weeks ago when it emerged that Grundy was in the habit of making racist comments on her twitter account. According to the Huffington Post,
Black sociology professor Saida Grundy, who completed her doctorate at the University of Michigan last year, had declared on her now-private Twitter account that "white masculinity is THE problem for America's colleges."

In other recent tweets, she said, "Deal with your white (expletive), white people. slavery is a (asterisk)YALL(asterisk) thing," and "Every MLK week I commit myself to not spending a dime in white-owned businesses. And every year I find it nearly impossible."
Grundy's apology was your standard non-apology.
"I regret that my personal passion about issues surrounding these events led me to speak about them indelicately," she said in a statement. "I deprived them of the nuance and complexity that such subjects always deserve."
Nuance - I don't think that word means what you think that word means.

Then it emerged that Grundy told a white rape survivor, in a Facebook exchange, to "go cry somewhere." In fact, the exchange involved extended abusive language on the part of Grundy.

Then another group turned up a long list of factually wrong twitter statements made by Grundy making it appear that she lacked any comprehension of history. Oh, and further racist commentary as well.

Now, today, there is the revelation that she also has a criminal history as a cyber bully.
Grundy used the identity of a Virginia woman in a jealous fit over a man in late 2007 to create online accounts in the woman’s name, including one on an adult website for people looking for trysts, according to a police report obtained by the Herald under a Freedom of Information Act request.

Grundy got one year of probation after pleading guilty to malicious use of telecommunication services, a misdemeanor, according to online court records and Dan Dwyer, the court administrator at Washtenaw County Trial Court in Michigan. Two felony charges, identity theft and using a computer to commit a crime, were dismissed.

The cyber harassment took place in December 2007 when Grundy was at the University of Michigan, where she earned a master’s degree in sociology and a doctorate of philosophy in sociology and women’s studies in 2014.

The victim told police in Charlottesville, Va., that someone was creating accounts in her name and posting her personal information online, according to the police report.
So Boston University appears, after a careful selection process, to have hired an ignorant, racist, emotionally erratic cyber bully. What was their process exactly?
BU’s African American Studies faculty posted an online message welcoming Grundy, saying she had been hired after a nationwide search and chosen from over 100 applicants.
She was the best pick out of 100 applicants? There were 100 candidates with flaws greater than being an ignorant, racist, emotionally erratic cyber bully? Inconceivable. Oh, yeah.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Building self-adjusting purposeful cultures and leadership teams

A former colleague, Brigitte Morel, argues in Is the leadership bar raised impossibly high? that
we may be entering an era when the bar of leadership effectiveness is raised so high that it’s simply out of reach to the numbers required to fuel business growth, at a time when there is a scarcity of ready-now leaders equipped to tackle the next major economic shockwave that will send ripples throughout the world economy.
I respond:
I would argue that yes, expectations (external and self-imposed) of leaders are always rising and that that is not a bad thing. I think, though, that the challenge is that the expectations rise faster than the capability to individually adjust. All significant contextual issues are becoming more complex, more variable, more dynamic, and subject to greater incident rate of black swan events: the economy, technology, regulation, domestic political environment, global political environment, personnel diversity, legal environment, customer diversity, sources of competition, supply chains, manufacturing, training and education, etc.

There is a limit to what any individual can incorporate and demonstrate mastery of, regardless of his/her purposefulness or agility.

I think what is happening is that this differential between increasing contextual complexity (all the above issues interacting together) and the capacity of individual accommodation is putting a premium on Culture and Team Leadership in a way that is different from the past. The leaders with such high expectations of them perforce must build more robust and resilient cultures to accommodate complexity as well as demonstrate effectiveness in cultivating diverse executive team leadership. The team can’t simply be the sum of the expert parts but has to function as a constantly evolving capability. Hierarchy is necessary in all cases and is particularly well suited for predictable and non-variant environments. The challenge for the modern leader is to create hierarchy which can evolve collectively to accommodate fast changing externalities. I think the issue is not just that expectations are rising but that the form of those expectations is changing as well.

I think the practical limit on the bar of expectations is not so much to do with individuals but the capacity to build self-adjusting purposeful cultures and leadership teams.
Individuals will always matter but individual expertise and capability is, in increasingly complex environments, beginning to ever more clearly take second place to institutional capability.

Diversity in theory and diversity in practice

There is an editorial in The Nation this morning, How Immigrants Have Changed the Democratic Party illustrating how easy it is for wires to cross.

Reading the headline, I thought that that was an interesting take. One of the striking things in the past year has been both the contrast in diversity between the Democrats (two old white women, one old white male self-declared socialist, and one young white male) with the diversity of the Republican field (one older white male married with an Hispanic American family, two young Hispanics, two Asian Americans, one older white male married to an Asian American, one white female, one black male, etc.). I have not seen this irony much remarked on, or remarked on at all. Democrats appear to be intellectually committed to the theory of diversity but Republicans appear to be actually living diversity in a remarkably thorough way.

So reading the headline, I interpreted it to mean that there was actually a hidden tier of local rising Democrat leadership that is minority and immigrant that had been overlooked. I was unaware of such rising talent and thought that might be interesting and clicked on over. Instead, the body of the editorial is about how the status of illegal immigrants has become a more critical issue for Democrats from a political campaigning perspective. I think the headline to the editorial would more accurately be something like "Immigrant Issues Drive Democratic Party Campaign" or something like that.

Just one of those communication mix-ups but perhaps it augers that commentators will at some point begin to hypothesize about why Republicans seem to be so assimilationist and accommodating of racial, religious and cultural diversity while such diversity seems to be so absent from the leadership of the Democratic party. A puzzling conundrum in some ways though with a ready, but not particularly kind, explanation.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Most theories about political effects of inequality need to be either abandoned or reframed as theories about the effects of perceived inequality

I have argued for a good while that concern about income inequality, while possibly reflecting noble sentiments, has had no real evidentiary basis. Not that there is no income inequality but rather that we are still in the early cognitive stages of even understanding what we are talking about in terms of concepts, measurements, causation, etc. regarding an extremely complex issue.

I have also argued that most of the pundit talk on income inequality is simply political haranguing. Any cudgel in the fight.

Here is further evidence supporting that position. From Misperceiving Inequality by Vladimir Gimpelson and Daniel Treisman. The abstract:
Since Aristotle, a vast literature has suggested that economic inequality has important political consequences. Higher inequality is thought to increase demand for government income redistribution in democracies and to discourage democratization and promote class conflict and revolution in dictatorships. Most such arguments crucially assume that ordinary people know how high inequality is, how it has been changing, and where they fit in the income distribution. Using a variety of large, cross-national surveys, we show that, in recent years, ordinary people have had little idea about such things. What they think they know is often wrong. Widespread ignorance and misperceptions of inequality emerge robustly, regardless of the data source, operationalization, and method of measurement. Moreover, we show that the perceived level of inequality—and not the actual level—correlates strongly with demand for redistribution and reported conflict between rich and poor. We suggest that most theories about political effects of inequality need to be either abandoned or reframed as theories about the effects of perceived inequality.
I believe Dan Gardner might have a chapter on this issue in his Future Babble. I know someone has written this up in book form.
From the paper itself:
And the difficulty of measuring the actual income distribution does not affect our second point: that perceptions of inequality — whether or not they are accurate — do correlate with political preferences.

Where the marriages are

A wonderfully interesting study, How Your Hometown Affects Your Chances of Marriage by David Leonhardt and Kevin Quealy. The study is big, robust, complex, and puzzling. The best kind of thing to get your cognitive teeth into. The links in the article are worth following for additional layers of complexity and detail.
The place where you grow up doesn’t affect only your future income, as we wrote about last week. It also affects your odds of marrying, a large new data set shows.

The most striking geographical pattern on marriage, as with so many other issues today, is the partisan divide. Spending childhood nearly anywhere in blue America — especially liberal bastions like New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston and Washington — makes people about 10 percentage points less likely to marry relative to the rest of the country. And no place encourages marriage quite like the conservative Mountain West, especially the heavily Mormon areas of Utah, southern Idaho and parts of Colorado.


One caveat: All of these statistics analyze a child’s odds of being married by age 26. We asked the researchers, Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren, whether the differences in marriage may be much smaller than these comparisons suggest. That is, does a childhood make marriage less likely — or simply delay marriage?

It does not seem to simply delay marriage; the researchers found very similar patterns when they looked at the data up to age 30. The places that made marriage more likely at 26 also tended to make it more likely at age 30. The children in the study aren’t yet old enough for conclusions beyond age 30. But the best guess for now is that these differences aren’t only about timing. Children who grow in New York, among other places, appear less likely to be married by 26, less likely to be married by 30 and probably less likely to marry at any point.


One of the most striking relationships we found in the data was between political ideology and the marriage effect: The more strongly a county voted Republican in the 2012 election, the more that growing up there generally encourages marriage.

And it’s not simply about rural areas leaning Republican and promoting marriage — although both are true. The few metropolitan counties that voted Republican in 2012 turn out to be in marriage-encouraging places, such as Phoenix, Salt Lake City and Fort Worth, as well as Waukesha County, Wis., just west of Milwaukee.


The Deep South presents the most complex picture. It nudges affluent children toward marriage and lower-income children away from it. By comparison, the Northeast generally discourages marriage for children of all income levels, and the Mountain West encourages it for children of all levels.

Race certainly plays a role here. Lower-income children in the South are disproportionately black, and marriage rates are also lower among African-Americans. But the data suggests that race is not the only factor: When poor families move to the South, their children become less likely to marry, and there is no evidence that the effect is restricted to only one race.


Politics isn’t the only dividing line on marriage. Less densely populated places also seem to promote marriage, even after taking an area’s political leanings into account.

The only two states that both make marriage significantly more likely and that voted Democratic in 2012 are Iowa and Oregon. Those two states have a much lower population density than California, Illinois, New Jersey, New York and most other blue states. That’s a sign that rural areas and small towns encourage marriage more than cities.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

No matter how much evidence exists that seers do not exist, suckers will pay for the existence of seers.

From From Future Babble by Dan Gardner, page 13.

Gardner does a comprehensive job of demonstrating just how poor has been the track record of forecasters. Here is just one demonstration.
Economists in particular, are treated with the reverence the ancient Greeks gave the Oracle of Delphi. But unlike the notoriously vague pronouncements that once issued from Delphi, economists' predictions are concrete and precise. Their accuracy can be checked. And anyone who does that will quickly conclude that economists make lousy soothsayers: “The record of failure to predict recessions is virtually unblemished,” wrote IMF economist Prakash Loungani in one of many papers demonstrating the near-universal truth that economists’ predictions are least accurate when they are most needed. Not even the most esteemed economists can claim
significant predictive success. Retired banker and financial writer Charles Morris examined a decade’s worth of forecasts issued by the brilliant minds who staff the White House’s Council of Economic Advisors. Morris started with the 1997 forecast. There would be modest growth, the council declared; at the end of the year, the American economy had grown at a rate more than double the council’s
forecast. In 1998, the story was much the same. And in 1999. In 2000, the council “sharply raised both their near- and medium-term outlooks —just in time for the dot-com bust and the 2001–2002 recession.” The record for the Bush years was “no better,” Morris writes. But it was the forecast for 2008 that really amazes: “The 2008 report expected slower but positive growth in the first half of the year, as investment shifted away from housing, but foresaw a nice recovery in the second half, and a decent year overall. Their outlook for 2009 and 2010 was for a solid three percent real growth with low inflation and good employment numbers,” Morris writes. “In other words, they hadn’t a clue.”

And they weren’t alone. With very few exceptions, economists did not foresee the financial and economic meltdown of 2008. Many economists didn’t recognize the crisis for what it was even as it was unfolding. In December 2007—months after the credit crunch began and the very moment that would officially mark the beginning of the recession in the United States—BusinessWeek magazine ran its annual chart of detailed forecasts for the year ahead from leading American analysts. Under the headline “A Slower but Steady
Economy,” every one of fifty-four economists predicted the U.S. economy wouldn’t “sink into a recession” in 2008. The experts were unanimous that unemployment wouldn’t be too bad, either, leading to the consensus conclusion that 2008 would be a solid but unspectacular year. One horrible year later—as people watching the evening news experienced the white-knuckle fear of passengers in a plunging jet—BusinessWeek turned to the economists who had so spectacularly blown that year’s forecast and asked them to tell its readers what would happen in 2009. There was no mention of the previous year’s fiasco, only another chart filled with reassuringly precise numbers. The headline: “A Slower but Steady Economy.”

By definition, experts know much about their field of expertise. Economists can—usually—look around and tell us a great deal about the economy, political scientists can do the same for politics and government, ecologists for the environment, and so on. But the future? All too often, their crystal balls work no better than those of fortunetellers. And since rational people don’t take seriously the prognostications of Mysterious Madam Zelda or any psychic, palm reader, astrologer, or preacher who claims to know what lies ahead, they should be skeptical of expert predictions. And yet we are not skeptical. No matter how often expert predictions fail, we want more. This strange phenomenon led Scott Armstrong, an expert on forecasting at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, to coin his “seer-sucker” theory: “No matter how much evidence exists that seers do not exist, suckers will pay for the existence of seers.” Sometimes we even go back to the very people whose predictions failed in the past and listen, rapt, as they tell us how the future will unfold.

Monday, May 18, 2015

It's not that they are liberal, its that they are unscientific

It is interesting to treat Fixing the Problem of Liberal Bias in Social Psychology by Piercarlo Valdesolo as a serious argument.

He starts with an agreed premise.
Social psychology is overwhelmingly composed of liberals (around 85%).
He then goes on
The question of why this is the case, and whether it presents a problem for the field, is more controversial.
Where I think Valdesolo goes astray is his framing of proposed solutions. He creates a strawman. He argues as if the only proposal is for political ideological affirmative action. There are certainly a few voices calling for exactly that. But they are rare.

Valdesolo argues that affirmative action for conservatives is an inappropriate response because two wrongs don't make a right and two biases don't average out to the truth. Both statements are true and irrelevant. Most critics don't wish for an affirmative action program for conservatives. What they want is greater adherence to the scientific method in social psychology. Right now 70-90% of all social psychology experiments cannot be replicated, suggesting that ideological biases and assumptions are creeping in to research.

If all social psychologist were to suddenly adopt the scientific method, it wouldn't matter much what their biases might be. That is partly what the scientific method is for. Revealing replicable truth regardless of assumptions and expectations.

By attacking a strawman argument of his own making and not addressing the real issues for critics, Valdesolo tends to undermine his position. It is inescapably true as well that Valdesolo's preferred solution (let's us fix our own profession ourselves without intervening and forcing us to accept more diversity of viewpoint) is the one that is both easiest on the existing practitioners and the one least likely to make any difference. There have been social psychologists of one leaning or another running solid scientific studies for many decades. Their results are not contingent on their beliefs but on robust science.

The fact that most social psychologists have chosen not to follow that established pattern of behavior is a testament that leaving them alone to fix the acknowledged problem is a likely indication that the problem won't actually get solved.

By using strawman arguments and arriving at solutions that are entirely self-serving and yet unconvincing, Valdesolo illustrates what is actually wrong with the profession. It's not that they are liberal, its that they are unscientific. A fact that, in one form or another, keeps coming up in the comments section.

Provocative arguments

An amusing argument fully fitting of a college bull session: Why conservatives give better commencement speeches than liberals by Carlos Lozada.

Lozada has read two anthologies of commencement speeches (a journalist taking one for the team) which sum to 48 speeches. His observations.
Conservative speeches are shorter.

Conservatives give more actionable advice.

Conservatives tell better stories.

Conservatives are less likely to suck up to you.
I think n=48 is an insufficient population base from which to draw any conclusions. I think, from anecdotal experience, that the broader conclusion might be "Commencement speeches are a good reason to be glad you are done with college." Or "Commencement speeches: a sustained exercise in cliches, heuristics, and tropes."

Lozada's claim is not based on sufficient data to support his argument but it is sufficiently provocative to mull on.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Marxist nonsense well received in a conservative think-tank

The Manhattan Institute is a conservative think tank and among their areas of focus is an online magazine Minding the Campus which offers contrarian and often thoughtful commentary and research on trends in academia. But not always.

Why Elite Students Get Elite Jobs by Peter Sacks is an example of a failed book review, in part because of the reviewer and in part because of the book being reviewed.
The conventional meritocratic recipe for success is simple enough: study hard in school, get good grades, be involved in one’s community, find an appropriate college, apply for jobs in your field of study, and everything else falls in place. But that’s not how it really works says Lauren A. Rivera, author of Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs.

The path to success she sees is this: Be born to upper-middle-class or wealthy parents. Know what academic tracks to be on by the end of middle school — knowledge that one acquires from well-educated parents and school counselors with low caseloads. Get involved early in the competitive sports favored by elites, such as lacrosse, tennis, sailing, skiing, golf, cycling, climbing, soccer, and running. Test well enough to get into an elite university.
Part of the issue is a lack of clarity of terms. What does Rivera mean by elite? By income? By wealth? Something else? Is Rivera charting how children from elite families move into elite jobs or is she documenting that elite jobs are dominated by elite families?

It appears to me as if she is doing the former but claiming the latter.

There is no doubt that elite families invest heavily in terms of money, parental time, and life experiences for their children. Some of what she writes is no doubt true. What she doesn't address, at least as reflected in the review, is an analytical justification for her thesis. I have no doubt that some proportion of elite children will strive for elite performance themselves and that a disproportionate number compared to non-elite (the greater number of people) will succeed in becoming elite themselves. But that isn't particularly useful knowledge. What is useful are specifics which appear to regrettably be absent from the argument.

If 10,000 elite children set out to run the company, perhaps only 10 succeed for a 0.1% yield rate. And if 10,000 non-elite children set out to run the company, perhaps only 1 succeeds for a 0.01% yield rate. However, the non-elite outnumber the elite by many multiples and so across thousands of companies and institutions, even though the success RATE for elites is higher, in absolute numbers, the non-elite win hands down. But that doesn't fit the Gramscian/Marxist fantasy.

There is also no doubt that elite schools play a role in this. I can't think why anyone would either be surprised by any of that nor dismayed. Surely the issue, though, is outcomes both for elite children and for elite jobs.

In other words, do elite children actually succeed disproportionately? I suspect the answer is yes but not nearly to the degree that people wish to pretend. All those investments move the dial favorably in one direction but much of the outcome is dependent on individual choices, decision-making and behaviors. All that investment is contributive of good outcomes but does not by any means guaranty it. Children who fail to launch, fall from the straight and narrow, get distracted on the pathway of life, etc. may, perhaps, not be quite as common in elite families as in poorer families but they certainly are not uncommon.

The other question apparently not addressed is whether elite performers today come from elite families yesterday? My experience is that yes there is a skew among current elite leaders towards upper middle class family backgrounds but that the greater majority of executives and leaders come from non-elite backgrounds. On any given corporate or foundation board, you might have one or more Ivy league degrees, but most of the board members are going to be from state schools or middle tier private schools.

The reviewer considers that
The book offers a rare glimpse into the hiring practices of EPS firms and how they differ from “the dominant theory of hiring” in the United States. The dominant model holds that employers hiring decisions are based largely on “estimates of human capital, social capital, gender and race. But that model is inadequate, she argues, because it fails to account for the increasingly powerful role that one’s class background plays in the recruiting and hiring practices firms that prepare one for leadership roles in society.
This is nonsense on a stick. Elitism and class have always played their roles and continue to do so. It appears that Rivera wants to make the case that it is getting worse and that elite performance now depends on elite background. The literature is long and complete on that argument. No, elite backgrounds neither guaranty elite personal performance nor are most fields dominated by people from elite backgrounds. Having worked for an Elite Professional Services (EPS) firm, having risen to the top rank of that firm, having recruited hundreds of professionals on three continents, I can attest to the fact that Rivera has the wrong end of the stick. She appears to have an academic's ignorance of the real world of commerce and the ideologue's conviction that all data supports her hypothesis that the elites are out to prevent anyone else coming up the ladder.

Here's the tell.
The author says she did not set out to prove any particular theory, but allowed the data to drive her interpretations. She concludes that the hiring practices of certain employers — ones that are pivotal in shaping the nation’s future leaders — are driven by considerations of class status. Class, she argues — and the social capital associated with class, is more important than virtually any other factor in whether certain high-statues employers will even consider an applicant for a job.
Of course she would say she just wanted the data to drive her interpretations but regrettably she selected only the data that would support her preconceived interpretation.

No doubt that class serves as a marker that is of interest to employers. But it is a proxy. It is not, repeat not, "more important than virtually any other factor in whether certain high-statues employers will even consider an applicant for a job." What employers care about far more than anything else is the probability as to whether a particular candidate will adjust to the given firm and its circumstances, grow with it, and materially contribute to the financial well-being of the firm. That is their primary concern, not Rivera's imaginary class.

Rivera's ignorance is not limited to commerce. She appears also to be unaware of the mechanics of higher education as well. Why do EPS firms go to elite universities for candidates? Efficiency not class. Firms cannot test for IQ but Universities can. If you go to an elite university for recruiting, you are virtually guaranteed that you will have very bright individuals interview. You still have to determine whether they can also be effective, but the university usually does a good job of screening not only for intelligence but also for accomplishment (and the necessary behavioral attributes underpinning accomplishment).

If I am an EPS recruiting at an elite university with a graduating class of 500, virtually any one of them are likely to meet the minimum profile. If I go to a state university with a graduating class of 5,000, almost certainly there are 500 similarly accomplished candidates at that university compared to the elite university. But now I have to take time and money to discern which among the 5,000 are the 500 I might want to consider hiring. Rivera seems oblivious to all this in her pursuit of the myth, pardon me, thesis, that the elites are circumscribing everyone else's opportunities.

The fact that Rivera doesn't know what she is talking about was, for me, most forcefully made with this passage.
Rivera cites research that America is unique among other advanced nations in the extent that people care about the reputation and prestige of one’s alma mater. In few other countries has one’s potential for leadership been so closely tied to where one attended college. As Rivera demonstrates, that has become a self-fulfilling prophesy of the new meritocracy. Exceedingly influential firms have uniquely positioned themselves as “finishing schools” for America’s elites, and yet there is virtually no evidence to suggest whether the system selects for the best, or simply the more well-positioned and well-polished.
This is so bad it calls to mind Wolfgang Pauli's famous rebuke, Das ist nicht nur nicht richtig, es ist nicht einmal falsch! (It is not only not right, it is not even wrong.)

If Rivera researched anything overseas, it can't have included Britain, France, Russia, India, China, Japan, etc. All those countries have clearly understood hierarchies of prestige and elitism in their universities that is far stronger than in the US.

Rivera wants to make the case that
“Because of the way they hire,” Rivera writes, “these employers end up systematically excluding smart, driven, and socially skilled students from less privileged socioeconomic backgrounds from the highest-paying entry-level jobs in the United States, positions that serve as gateways to the country’s economic elite.”
She fails entirely because she fails to actually look at where the elite come from. Ivy League students do very well out of life's competition but that is primarily because the Ivies have made themselves very good at admitting the brightest and most accomplished students. If Rivera had defined what constitutes the elite and then had actually looked at who occupies the elite positions in the country, she would have found that the overwhelming majority did not attend an Ivy League or equivalent school and did not arrive at their position of accomplishment through classism. They arrived because of what they were able to accomplish.

Rivera appears to be one more in a long line of Gramscian academics who are so blinded by their ideological convictions that they can't even acknowledge what is common knowledge. I cede to no one a concern about classism as a continuing potential threat, but this isn't evidence of that.

Yet another issue that is not addressed is the academic's desire to talk about the abstract conception of "The Elite" versus addressing the concrete realities of who actually constitutes those elite. Are we talking wealth, income, celebrity, academic fame, objective performance? And how many of these elites are there? In England in the 19th century, it was said that there were 400 families who effectively determined the course of the country. So how many elite are there in the US and who are they? A thousand, ten thousand, a hundred thousand, a million? Apparently Rivera never says.

More importantly than that, is this a stable group over time? Historically, class meant some self-identifying, self-propagating group of influential people. Rivera disavows a hereditary definition of elitism. That's good because there is pitiably small evidence to support that argument. But if we aren't talking about familial hereditary as the basis of class, then what exactly are we talking about? The top 5% of the population by income, for example? The problem with this is that it lacks meaning and is tautological. There will always be a top 5%.

The other problem is churn among the 5%. Whether looking at income, wealth, or any other empirical measure of elite performance, the population that constitutes that 5% is always churning. The Forbes list of 400 richest people in the US has 20-40% churn in any given year and the number of individuals who remain on the list for ten years or more is vanishingly small.

What you are left with is that elite people in sports, commerce, politics, entertainment, media, academia, etc. come from all walks of life. There is a skew towards people from middle class and above families but it is by no means even close to being sealed off from everyone else. 70% of all Americans will be in the top quintile of income at least one point in their life. Elite education and then into EPS is certainly one pathway towards success but it is not the main pathway (in terms of number of people who travel along it). Nor is there a stable population that constitutes the elite class. It is changing by individuals, by country of origin, by race, by education attainment, by region, by religion, etc. all the time. And not slowly.

Rivera's argument is in tatters. Having staggered through factual and evidentiary errors of such a basic nature, it is galling to see the reviewer, Sacks, conclude "For the most part, Rivera’s analysis is believable and compelling." Well, no. Someone who has never heard of Oxford and Cambridge, the grandes écoles, University of Tokyo, etc. as elite gatekeepers is neither believable or compelling.

UPDATE: I should have remembered this. It is the nail in the coffin to Rivera's thesis. Revisiting the Value of Elite Colleges by David Leonhardt is a summary of Dale and Krueger's replication of their earlier work which found that, for a given SAT score, it din't matter whether you attended Penn State or University of Pennsylvania (elite Ivy League), statistically you will achieve identical life outcomes in terms of income and wealth accumulation.
The starting point is the obvious fact that graduates of elite colleges make more money than graduates of less elite colleges. This pattern holds even when you control for the SAT scores and grades of graduates. By themselves, these patterns seem to suggest that the college is a major reason for the earnings difference.

But Ms. Dale — an economist at Mathematica, a research firm — and Mr. Krueger — a Princeton economist and former contributor to this blog — added a new variable in their research. They also controlled for the colleges that students applied to and were accepted by.

Doing so allowed them to capture much more information about the students than SAT scores and grades do. Someone who applies to Duke, Williams or Yale may be signaling that he or she is more confident and ambitious than someone with similar scores and grades who does not apply. Someone who is accepted by a highly selective school may have other skills that their scores didn’t pick up, but that the admissions officers noticed.

Once the two economists added these new variables, the earnings difference disappeared. In fact, it went away merely by including the colleges that students had applied to — and not taking into account whether they were accepted. A student with a 1,400 SAT score who went to Penn State but applied to Penn earned as much, on average, as a student with a 1,400 who went to Penn.

“Even applying to a school, even if you get rejected, says a lot about you,” Mr. Krueger told me. He points out that the average SAT score at the most selective college students apply to turns out to be a better predictor of their earnings than the average SAT score at the college they attended. (The study measured a college’s selectivity by the average SAT score of admitted students as well as by a selectivity score that the publisher Barron’s gives to colleges.)
It is not elitism that determines outcomes but IQ, effort, and some combination of personal attributes such as confidence, perseverance, resilience, etc. that determine life outcomes. So much for the closed doors of the elite club and class as a determinant.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Tread carefully when it comes to deciding for poor people what their consumption preferences should be.

From Why Don't They Come? by Ian David Moss, Louise Geraghty, Clara Schuhmacher and Talia Gibas

These researchers seem both deeply committed to a particular concept of equality as well as deeply committed to evidenced-based decision-making, a regrettably rare combination. In this particular instance, they are exploring how to make the arts, broadly defined, as accessible to the poor as to the rich. The summary of their findings:
People with lower incomes and less education (low-SES) participate at lower rates in a huge range of activities, including not just classical music concerts and plays, but also less “elitist” forms of engagement like going to the movies, dancing socially, and even attending sporting events.

This is despite the fact that low-SES adults actually have more free time at their disposal, on average.

Cost is a barrier for some low-SES individuals who want to participate in the arts, but not as many as you might think. If we could somehow make it so that low-SES adults were no more likely to decide not to attend an exhibit or performance because of cost than their more affluent peers, it would hardly change the socioeconomic composition of audiences at all.

A major contrast to this dynamic is television. Ironically, the for-profit commercial TV industry is far more effective than our subsidized nonprofit arts organizations at engaging economically vulnerable members of our society. Not only do low-SES adults watch more TV, low-SES adults who don’t attend arts events watch even more TV than low-SES adults who do.

Where to go from here? We’d like to better understand why people make the choices they do before offering recommendations. At the very least, though, we can say that television should receive far more recognition than it does for its role in shaping the cultural lives of socioeconomically disadvantaged adults.
"We’d like to better understand why people make the choices they do before offering recommendations." What a pleasant, but rare, modesty.

The common explanation for lower income individuals not participating in "arts" are: 1) cost, 2) accessibility, and 3) intimidation. What this detailed research seems to be finding is that none of these three explanations adequately explains lower participation.

Scattered through their detailed report are a number of insights.

Poorer people accessing the arts is often seen as an American problem but it appears to be a common OECD problem.
Looking at income levels shows a similar correlative relationship: those earning between $20,000 and $50,000, who make up one-third of the US population, made up just a quarter of 2012 benchmark arts audiences in 2012. Statistics from the UK, Ireland, and the Netherlands tell a similar story.
In addition to the traditional arts, (live attendance at ballet, opera, musical and nonmusical plays, classical music, jazz, museums, and galleries), the researchers have used a much broader definition including reading books, going to the movies, taking an arts class, playing a musical instrument, singing, dancing socially, taking or editing photographs, painting, making scrapbooks, engaging in creative writing, or making crafts. What they found was that people with lower incomes were less likely to participate in any of these activities, than those with higher income.

They address another commonly assumed cause, time availability.
According to a longitudinal study of time-use data by Almudena Sevilla, Jose I. Gimenez-Nadal, and Jonathan Gershuny, discretionary time has increased for all Americans over the last fifty years, and while hours of leisure time were once fairly equal across education levels, low-SES people have since enjoyed dramatic gains. By their estimation, low-SES men with at most a high school education have gained an hour more than their college-educated peers during that time; the corresponding differential for women is 3.4 hours.

Bottom line: all signs point to low-SES people having relatively more free time at their disposal and lower rates of arts attendance than their high-SES counterparts. That would seem to offer pretty strong evidence against the notion that time constraints are the primary factor keeping this demographic away from live performances and exhibits.
Going into the details of cost as a potential barrier:
So the way to get everyone participating in the arts is to invest more in free events and outreach programs to underserved populations, right? Not so fast. While it is clear that cost does affect the ability of some low-SES adults to engage with the arts, or at least live exhibits and performances, it’s not at all clear that removing cost as a barrier would make that much of a difference.

Consider this: “When Going Gets Tough” reports that there is only a 6 percentage-point gap between the lowest and highest income quartile for those who had free admission to the most recent arts exhibit they’d attended (64% in the lowest income quartile vs. 58% in the highest income quartile). While the difference in attendance at free performances is more pronounced in the GSS data, the most recent SPPA survey tells a different story: the rate of arts attendance at free music, theater, or dance performances actually increases as income and education levels go up. Moreover, this phenomenon has been observed in arts research going back at least half a century. For their seminal early 1960s investigation of cultural economics, Performing Arts: The Economic Dilemma, William J. Baumol and William G. Bowen surveyed more than 30,000 attendees at 160 events in the US and UK and found that not a single free performance was able to draw an audience that was more than 10% “blue-collar.”
The good people of Createquity are left with a quandary.
Createquity’s definition of a healthy arts ecosystem imagines a world in which “each human being today and in the future has an opportunity to participate in the arts at a level appropriate to his/her interest and skill” (emphasis added). Our concern about disparities of access to the arts stems from the potential for life circumstances to interfere with such choices. The revelations in this research, however, suggest that there is a significant proportion of economically disadvantaged people who do not take the initiative to experience the arts, even when time and cost are not issues.

Our analysis of the GSS data underlying “When Going Gets Tough” shows that a lack of explicit interest is far and away the dominant factor keeping low-SES populations away from arts events. Just under a third of the overall sample neither attended an exhibit or performance in the past year nor could recall one they wanted to attend but couldn’t. Among the bottom income quartile, however, this number was nearly half – and for people who hadn’t finished high school, it was over 65%!
Unlike most motivated researchers who wish to find answers consistent with their expectations, the Createquity people are brutally honest.
The truth is that we don’t know much about why low-SES people make the choices they do about how to spend their free time. Are they watching television because they truly enjoy it and happen to find it more fulfilling than going out to a concert, a museum, or a movie theater? Or are they doing so as a reluctant concession to circumstance, with TV being the only art form they can afford to consume (or the only one they don’t have to schedule in advance)? Or perhaps something in between – a “learned” and socially reinforced preference that has as much to do with identity as anything specific to the experience itself?

“When Going Gets Tough” offers some support for the last of these propositions. Survey respondents who self-identified as middle or upper class were much more likely to attend an exhibit or performance than those who identified as working class. This finding held even after controlling for income and education:
For example, among individuals whose household income was around the national median, approximately 60% identified as working class and 36% as middle class. Despite having very similar household incomes, only 48% of those identifying as working class attended at least one exhibit or performance, compared with 67% who identified as middle class.
Perhaps some low-SES individuals don’t attend arts events simply because they don’t think of themselves as the “kind of people” who attend arts events. Which brings us back to the question: is that a problem?
All centrally designed and administered policies are subject to catastrophic failure arising from inadequate understanding of the complexity of human systems. In foreign aid in general, and economic development in particular, there is a huge literature surrounding such systematic failures in central planning. No matter the consistency of the outcomes, there is a pathological reluctance to acknowledge such failure. "If we just tweak this aspect of our effort, it will be different next time." But next time is never different.

Createquity, bless them, make a recommendation that is almost never seen in other fields of pathological altruism.
We would urge would-be social engineers to tread carefully when it comes to deciding for poor people what their consumption preferences should be. (An instructive example here is the movement in New York City and elsewhere to reduce soda consumption, which has faced pushback from the very low-income communities it’s intended to help.) How far can one go to increase participation by underrepresented audiences before those efforts stop being perceived as generous and start coming off as patronizing? Until we know more about low-SES people’s subjective experience of their free time — whether they would spend their time differently if they had the opportunity, and whether there’s a place for the arts in those dreams — we advise against making too many assumptions.